Why Americans Are So Fat

The gluttony of food manufacturers is to blame for the obesity crisis, not individual eaters.

This was previously published on Tin Foil Toque.

What’s wrong with the way Americans eat?

The way most Americans eat, and increasingly, the way more people in the world eat, is SAD. SAD is an acronym for the “Standard American Diet,” a generalization of how people in the most highly industrialized nations eat. Depending on who you ask, the problems with the SAD may include:

  • too much meat
  • too much fat
  • vegetable oil
  • refined flour
  • refined sweeteners
  • chemicals
  • foods denatured by excessive heat
  • not enough plant-based foods
  • not enough fiber

However, not every one of these factors has a clear relationship to how much energy storage we carry in our bodies, or to our health. The changes to our diet that have correlated with the obesity epidemic have not been in how much meat we eat, but in how cheap and highly available vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup have become in our diets since the early 1980s. The Standard American Diet is undoubtedly a highly processed diet, relying on the produce of conventionally raised plants grown in depleted soil, genetically modified, and grown with pesticides; animals raised in abusive conditions, on unnatural diets; and industrial chemicals. The SAD is not natural: it’s manufactured using modern technology, and the resulting diet is unlike anything we ate in any other period of human history.

The Standard American Diet is made of cheaply produced foods that have been modified to appeal to our senses so that we will buy more of them. They are a product first, not an essential of life. Purveyors of SAD food want you to keep buying their products. Your wellness is not their primary concern.

For most of human history, the ability to store fat in times of trouble was an advantageous feature that helped us survive, not a defect that threatened our well-being. The Standard American Diet takes advantage of loopholes in our feedback systems of satiety and satiation, rather than being optimized to most healthfully feed our human bodies and psyches. The SAD provides much more calorie-dense food than any we naturally had access to through most of history, but is otherwise nutritionally inadequate. People living on food like this will tend to eat too many calories, because no matter how much bad food a person eats, the body never gets its other nutritive needs properly satisfied.

Our modern, efficient food delivery system cures energy starvation, but instead causes diseases of overconsumption and malnourishment.

What’s wrong with Standard American Diet food?

A huge percentage of people in America, and increasingly, the rest of the world, are on weight loss diets, either now or at some point in their lives. Even those of us who aren’t on a diet right now often have some idea of what would be a healthy diet, and how close our own diet is to that goal. “Diet food” is very often as bad or even worse than what it replaces, because its qualities are based on faulty assumptions about what causes people to gain or lose weight, and on a highly simplistic view of the relationship between weight and health. Our concepts of diet for weight loss are punitive, classist, and feed a cycle of shame that precludes healthy attitudes about our bodies and what we eat.

Willpower is not infinite. Many diet foods suggest that they take the willpower out of the equation by providing a technological marvel such as “fat free cream cheese” or “sugar free, calorie free sweetened beverages.” Of all of the tricks that industrial food plays on our senses, diet food plays the worst tricks of all, by pretending to be more food than it is, with thickeners, added flavors, and artificial fats and sweeteners simulating calories. The reason these tricks can be played at all is because we have two feedback systems in our bodies for regulating food intake: one for satiety and one for satiation. Satiation has a quicker response time, quick enough to tell us to stop eating. It’s a heuristic for satiety, which takes longer to report to the body, because food has to be at least partially digested and absorbed for the body to know for sure what it contains and what the body may still need.

Diet science is junk science. The reason all of these tricks are played is a belief in the so-called “calories in, calories out” model of body weight that, like the Body Mass Index, is made up of some numbers that make bad superstition look like good science.

The BMI is the calculated ratio of your height over your weight. The CDC claims that it is a reliable indicator for most people, yet this ratio doesn’t actually tell you anything about an individual’s actual body mass. It makes the assumption that not just most people, but you, specifically, will have the average ratio of body fat to lean mass for people of your height and weight. It also assumes that, even if we knew what your lean to fat body mass ratio is, that it would tell you something important about your health. Clearly, this is all bullshit. Even people who’ve never heard of Health at Every Size can see that a highly active athlete and a couch potato can have the same BMI, and enjoy vastly different states of health.

The “calories in, calories out” model presumes both that we can accurately know how much nourishment you get from your food, and how much you expend. Even under laboratory conditions, we have isolated a number of factors that change how much of different nutrients people absorb from their food, from how palatable the food is to whether the person has an innate inability to properly digest the food. In the real world, other factors affect how much we eat, and these methods are studiously applied to us every time we eat at the home of the endless soup bowl. We’ve only just begun to understand the role of our gut flora in nutrient absorption, and that each of us has a different makeup of the many species of bacteria that live in our bodies and without which we would not exist. We know for sure that not everyone gets the same benefit from each food, each time they eat it.  Calories are measured by burning a food to ash, not by observing their effect in human bodies, and not in yours, particularly. This measurement on the “Nutrition Facts” label doesn’t guarantee that the food in your package precisely matches the sample that was measured, or that you will absorb the nutrients listed. Being able to accurately measure not just the potential nutrition you ingest, but what you actually absorb and how your body uses it, is beyond our abilities to scientifically measure.

Therefore, we can conclude that there are healthy ways of eating that are older than our concept of the kilocalorie. Luckily, we still have our bodies to tell us what to eat, how much, and when, as long as we don’t game the system with industrial foods, including diet foods.

How weight-loss dieting damages health

Industrial food can never be the basis of a healthy diet. It isn’t just that food that is manufactured is not fresh, or that it’s unbalanced compared with what we evolved to eat. It costs society more to allow industry to “add value” to food, including allowing industry to add the value of “diet versions” of the same foods, than it would be to ban all of it and revert to earlier ways of feeding people: fresh food, grown locally and prepared to meet personal tastes and requirements. The costs aren’t all in one place, and many of the costs are born by our bodies, which labor under the sufferings caused by bad food.

Chronic stress levels keep cortisol levels high, which drives us to eat, especially starchy foods. Dieting is a willpower-enforced famine condition. It’s profoundly unnatural and very difficult to sustain. It is a chronic condition of not getting enough calories, of baiting-and-switching the satiety/satiation feedback systems in the body. The stress of chronic malnourishment and exercise of rigid willpower drives up cortisol levels, which only serves to increase the drive to eat carbohydrate-rich foods. Eventually, the body asserts its needs for food, and the dieter falls off the diet.

Instead of realizing the actual factors that are causing the epidemic of obesity—an increasingly industrialized food chain, stagnating quality of life, increased stress—we persist in this notion that systemic problems should be fixed with individual willpower. Willpower is like spoons, or socks: we don’t all have a lot of them, some of us have to make careful arrangements not to run out, and the people who are hurt the most are the ones most in need and have the least. Asking people already laboring under the burdens of an unhealthy society to increase their personal expense to fix the same health problems that chronic stress and injustice cause is victim-blaming, judgmental, and unfair. It also doesn’t work.

What is really making us fat

So we know that calorie-counting doesn’t work for eating. “Calories out” is just as fuzzy a number as “calories in,” and for the same reasons: it’s practically impossible to know exactly how much energy a person expends in an activity, even one that has been measured in other people, because we differ metabolically. One example of the differences among people’s metabolisms is that some of us who may be described as metabolically tending toward obesity burn glycogen, which is our quick go-to energy source in the body, at much higher rates than people whose metabolisms do not incline them toward obesity. Not only do those of us with this metabolic tendency burn through our glycogen faster while at rest, but also when exercising. Additionally, we may be less “metabolically flexible,” meaning that our bodies are less able to shift to burning energy from fat stores than the “metabolically lean.” This makes it perceptibly more difficult for some people to do exercise.

Another factor that tends to keep people fat is one of insulin resistance. Eating a diet that delivers huge jolts of sugar to the bloodstream, several times a day, makes the body’s cells resistant to accepting insulin. Since insulin is what brings energy to our cells, we’re starved and exhausted at the cellular level. The energy goes into fat stores, not into the cells that need it.

Historically, when humans were chronically stressed, it was in conditions of famine and other physical hardship, and having the ability to use less energy and store it in our bodies, instead, was an advantage. The world we live in has so changed that this stress response is no longer a helpful adaptation. This is most evident among the people with the least power to make non-mainstream choices. People who are poor, abused, lack transportation, live in food deserts, can’t cook for themselves, are institutionalized, have no safe places to exercise, live with trauma and other chronic, painful, and debilitating conditions, work in unsafe conditions, and live with other modern stresses, are the hardest hit by the effects of industrial food. Our modern, efficient food delivery system cures energy starvation, but instead causes diseases of overconsumption and malnourishment.

The effects of metabolic inflexibility and insulin resistance make it increasingly difficult to exit a spiral of sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Add chronic stress, limited food choices, and few socially acceptable ways for fat people to exercise, and it’s easy to see how modern life makes people fat: not because we lack willpower, but because it’s unreasonable to expect people to expend energy as if it’s unlimited, to overcome the obstacles placed there by the same institutions that are supposed to make health easier to achieve.

Eating well is for every person

Health isn’t measurable through a BMI. Health is a subjective measure of one’s well-being and includes physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors. It’s not just your risk of developing a serious illness, but how well you feel each day.

The dietary model of willpower and calories doesn’t work for weight loss. More industrial food, harmful misinformation about eating and health, and victim-blaming exacerbate the health problems that industrial food has wrought on society: malnutrition, overeating, guilt, poor esteem and health. The Standard American Dieter’s Diet relies on the false science of calories and nutritionism, and the false assumption that willpower is an infinite resource. It assumes that our systemic problem is actually just a lot of individuals with willpower problems.

It suits the diet industry for their diets to convince you of their efficacy, but continually fail you. A beguiling promise that makes you their convert, and their consumer, is a cash cow. No one stands to make much money encouraging people to eat home-cooked meals together with their families. But everyone in society stands to benefit from increased well-being, which is why public health is properly publicly funded work, not contracted out to McDonald’s. It’s time to remember what the covenant of civilization is supposed to be for: not to make a few rich, but to give everyone a level of freedom and security in pursuit of their natural rights.

The cycle of bingeing, starving, and failed attempts to gain control over one’s life through willpower, is bad for every aspect of one’s health: self-image, nutrition, and energy levels. What is needed is not more willpower for fat people, but a unified model, universally embraced, of competent eating that includes a healthier attitude about food, treating food as a right and a pleasure instead of drudgery, more complete knowledge of how our bodies work, and a better food system that actually meets our needs for health first, rather than the corporation’s bottomless pit of desire for profit.


Read more Lifestyle on The Good Life.

Couple hiding behind pizza boxes courtesy of Shutterstock

About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. Thanks for all for compassionate and intelligent voices. Please remember that genetically engineered
    corn and soy, first arrived on agricultural industrial fields in 1992, now 98% of our corn,soy,many other
    grains are GE. No long term studies have been done on humans, although European studies link GMO corn to obesity, intestinal disease, and tumors.Corn syrup is in all processed foods. Europe has banned GE crops/foods.
    The wheat we consume today is not the same genetic wheat from the 1940’s. Read the new book, Wheat Belly. I started growing my own vegetables. It got me off TV, and using my mind and body. I have also gotten to know my neighbors in a good way, and we share food with each other. Thanks! what a sweet group of people…

  2. I recently lost 25 pounds (yay!) using the Weight Watchers points app to track my intake. Not that I’m shilling for WW. It’s what you make of it. In the past I’ve failed at diets like WW by trying to eat my usual diet, just less of it, which meant tiny tiny portions. Of course I couldn’t stick with it, One thing I did differently this time is eliminate processed foods. Ok I cheated now and again. But I’ve pretty much tried to stick to a diet where I mostly eat vegetables and chicken/fish, with a fair amount of fruit for snacks, and carbs from whole foods like brown rice or fresh corn. I gave up “diet” frozen food and snacks. For the first couple months, I admit, it was a struggle. But eventually my cravings for processed carbs and sugar went away and the fruit and veggies started tasting really good.

    Splenda has been a lifesaver for my sweet tooth, I know it IS a processed fake food, but I figure having some berries with milk and Splenda for dessert is better than caving into a craving for ice cream.

    Also, little crunchy Gala or Fuji apples — so sweet, so delicious for snacks.

    Finally, going to the Farmers Market and growing some of my own vegetables this summer is fantastic. The vegetables taste so much better and I get more variety.

    I have always struggled with yo,yo dieting but this is the easiest time I’ve ever had and I’m hopeful if I stick with my new eating habits, I won’t gain back any weight.

  3. Another thing that’s screwy with the modern American diet is that the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids has skyrocketed. Cereal grains, such as wheat and corn, have more significantly more omega-6 than omega-3, and the ratio found in grain-fed meat reflects this. There is also some evidence that diets with more omega-3 fatty acids reduce obesity, but it’s far from conclusive.

  4. Thanks for writing about something that really doesn’t get said enough. I recently got very busy at work and started eating on the go all the time and suddenly started putting on weight disturbingly quickly. I then realized that even the salads I was eating were fattening because they had corn syrup added.

    In contrast, if I eat from my own kitchen, just cooking simple things from unprocessed food, I can eat as much as I want whenever I want and my weight stays stable. If I add exercise to that and leave the food unchanged, I’ll shrink or gain muscle until fit. Carbs are fine. Dairy is fine. Meat is fine. But refined sugar and processed foods (which are full of refined sugars) can really ruin it all quickly.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    Very good points here.

    My main issue is with the secondary title, “…to blame for the obesity crisis, not individual eaters,” which seems to suggest that individual eaters are not responsible at all for obesity. I don’t think the article really argued that explicitly, but it seemed to be implied.

    Sure, anyone in the US today trying to eat healthy and not become obese has a real challenge, no question. But to say that individuals are not to blame at all for their obesity?

    (Maybe this was an editor’s title and not the author’s title?)

    • Being both the author and editor, I take responsibility 🙂

      I changed the title this time. I’ve learned a thing or two in the year since I wrote this on effective titles. The subtitle is about my argument for looking at environmental factors in obesity, because our current focus on weight loss as an individual matter of willpower, simply does not work. Most people can’t lose weight this way and keep it off. It takes a tremendous amount of psychic energy to diet.

      I’m concerned with the way obesity has become epidemic among poor Americans, because it’s an alarming illustration of what I’m talking about: that the answers have to lie in making our culture different, by implementing policies that tend to encourage the kinds of change we want to see. The health problems we’re seeing are not obesity per se, but a constellation of illnesses that tend to correlate with obesity because they’re all the results of the same conditions. Too much cheap, high-calorie food that is otherwise nutritionally inadequate, and not enough access to good quality food. Too many environmental toxins and stressors in our daily lives. You can’t expect a single person struggling under these pressures to make all the changes on his or her own. These are societal problems, like education, crime, and sanitation.

  6. J.R. Reed says:

    Right on Justin. I recently lost 65 pounds and was amazed at how crappy many “healthy” foods actually are.

    I lived in Canada for a year and I swear the four food groups there are bacon, pizza, wings and beer. And their official flavor is maple, eh.

    • I’d like to write a definitive post on food groups. Soon. “Animal Fat” would be a group. So would “Cultured Foods.” That takes care of bacon, wings, and beer.

      What did you do to lose 65 lbs, and what do you eat?

    • Goodness, where exactly in Canada did you live? While I enjoy bacon on occasion, as a Canadian myself I can assure you that there is a lot more variety than just bacon, pizza, wings and beer. Did you even WALK in the local supermarket?

      • I’m sure it has more to do with who JR was hanging out with than being in Canada. Most single guys living in cities live on take out and don’t do much cooking. People with kids cook more at home. Polls suggest most of the people who like to cook and do it often are cooking for more than just themselves.

  7. I think the type of foods that are most readily available and are the cheapest are flooding the market because they are also the cheapest to produce and therefore allows for the greatest profit to be made off the sale. In our market it is priority #1 of companies to maximize their profits. Since high quality food is far too expensive to produce and too risky to invest in, the availability of those products is limited, particularly in low income areas where people are far less likely to spend the extra money in higher prices to offset the higher costs. Combine that with the fact that poor people are far more likely to be uninsured and have likely been inadequately educated by our failing public schools, and you get an epidemic of obese people and children.
    For example, I love Wegmans and Whole Foods supermarkets. They have some of the finest quality produce, meats and cheeses, and on-site baked goods and prepared meals. But these companies can only open supermarkets in areas above a certain median income level otherwise they risk losing profits. I’m not blaming the supermarkets or pulling out a little violin for our nation’s poor, but I am simply pointing out that when the onus is on the consumer to choose better options for their nutrition, we can not expect to leave those with the least available resources to fend for themselves.

    • You’re right about the economics of which products flood the marketplace, but you still put the onus back on the poorest consumers when you expect them to drive farther, to the richer neighborhoods, to buy their groceries. You see how much easier it is to live a healthy lifestyle in a rich town like where I live: bike paths, sidewalks, a walkable downtown, several health food grocers and farmer’s markets. Compare this with the cities to the south of me that have struggled with housing foreclosures and city debt, and the stress and poverty that people live in there, and what kinds of food options are within a mile of anyone living there. I’ve heard about bootstrapping. Have you heard of people without boots?

      • I think maybe you misinterpreted the aim of my statement. I was pointing out that we can not leave the poor to fend for themselves when the onus to choose better options is placed solely on the consumer. In our market there is no real force driving the producers of our food to provide better products because nobody in government wants to make it harder for these companies to reap profits despite the evidence that their products are harmful. The problem is that the products are not harmful in small portions, it is that these kinds of food are relied upon by people as a staple of their diet and that is what causes their health issues. Big food companies argue that their products are safe and that consumers can choose whether to eat it or not if they believe it is harming them. So the argument to resist widespread change is based upon the principle of the consumer’s freedom of choice and that since consumers are choosing these products they are preferred over something else. But the reality is that most people don’t really have much of a choice due to where they live and what they can afford to buy. I do think there should be greater emphasis placed upon promoting healthy, whole foods across the board. But some people in this country consider that an unwelcome government mandate telling them what they can and can not eat or drink.

        • I agree with you that the quality of food should be a public health matter, not left to the marketplace, because as we’ve noted, the poor suffer the most, can least afford to make the countercultural choices for health. There isn’t really free choice for everyone when the “good” stores are in the “good” neighborhoods, few or no government subsidies making it affordable for stores to open in poor neighborhoods, or for the people there to afford good food.


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